Friday, 30 April, 2004

Don't mess with Mom!

Never doubt that a doe will protect her fawn.  It's that time of year again.  Debra and I had been watching a particular pregnant doe hanging around the house for a few days.  We were hoping to witness the birth and maybe get a few pictures.  We were mowing the lawn this evening (rain is forecast for the next couple of days) and Charlie was out running around the yard.  I looked up from what I was doing and saw him playing one of his favorite games:  running along the fence barking at the deer.  Except this time things were a little different.  One of the deer charged straight at him, turned quickly as she neared the fence, and kicked out with her back feet.  Charlie's lucky she didn't come any closer.  At this point I stopped the mower to watch.

The deer ran off a few paces and turned around.  While she and Charlie were having a stare-down I noticed that this was our formerly pregnant doe who, from the blood on her back legs, I would say had only recently given birth.  The way she was behaving, I suspect that she was purposely leading Charlie away from where she'd left her fawn.  What happened next took me completely by surprise.  Charlie was barking and carrying on, trying to get the deer to run.  He turned his back on the doe, probably headed to the middle of the yard where he'd turn around again and charge at the fence.  He hadn't taken more than a few steps when the doe charged, sailed over the fence and headed straight for him.  He started running when he heard her leap the fence and for about 15 seconds that doe stayed right on his heels, even trying to stomp him with her front hoof.  If Charlie had stumbled at all he would have been seriously injured or killed.  At this point I chased the deer off, collared Charlie, and locked him up in the house.

I don't know if Charlie realized that the doe was trying to hurt him or if he thought she was playing chase.  When we let him out a few hours later he went back to chasing the deer, although he seemed to be a bit wary of that one particular doe.  She was standing guard, too.  She always managed to regain his attention whenever he'd head off somewhere else.  I had always heard about a mother's "protective instinct," but this is the first time I'd ever seen it up close and personal.  Believe me, there is something to it.  The only other time a deer will stand still when Charlie comes running is rutting season.  The bucks will stand their ground for a little longer, but even then they scamper off before Charlie gets within range.

Don't mess with Mom!

Monday, 26 April, 2004

Random thoughts in the war on fat

North Carolina is going to spend $10 million on programs to educate adults and children about better eating habits and the benefits of exercise.  The CDC has released its list of the states with the worst obesity epidemics, with Mississippi, Louisiana, and West Virginia topping the list.  As a reward, 25 Mississippi schools will get $40,000 to be used in staving off the epidemic.  A study in London shows (depending on who you believe) that efforts to cut children's soft drink consumption will reduce the number of overweight children.  A Chicago Sun-Times editorial suggests that parents (perish the thought!) should serve as role models for their children in establishing good eating and exercise habits.  News stories abound about the increasing incidence of obesity in the U.S. and the increasing strain that our bulging waistlines are putting on an already overburdened health care system.  Everybody's talking about it and everybody has an idea that will solve the problem.  Unfortunately, most of those ideas involve throwing money at the problem, which we should know by now won't do a damned thing except make some fat slob rich.

There are even some naysayers out there who dispute the correlation between obesity and long-term health consequences like heart disease and diabetes.  I'm not sure what they're trying to accomplish, but their voices are becoming increasingly shrill.  One of their biggest arguments is that the Body Mass Index (BMI) standard is biased toward an unrealistically thin ideal, and with that I'll agree.  At my current weight, according to the BMI standard, I'm just at the edge of obese, which is laughable.  That's the only one of their arguments that holds water.  Granted, there's no proof that being 200 lbs overweight is the cause, but the correlation sure makes one think.  Or should.

I'm convinced that the only reason the Bush Administration hasn't declared a "War on Fat" is that they're afraid they'd piss off too many people who would then switch their votes.  It'd be kind of funny, come to think of it, to watch John Kerry's reaction to an announced War on Fat.  I can't say whether he'd try to out-exercise the President (a tough thing to do, by all reports) or gain 50 lbs just to differentiate himself.  Either way, it'd be amusing.

Saturday, 24 April, 2004

Pondering investment options

I find myself in a rather odd position financially.  Debra and I have finally saved enough money that we have to think about what to do with it.  I won't be quitting my job any time soon, but we have managed to put together a few dollars that could grow into quite a tidy sum if we invest it reasonably.  Oh, but where to invest it?

I'm not a complete novice when it comes to investing.  I've invested in mutual funds with varying success and opened an E-Trade account a few years back, again with varying success.  I got lucky with a few stocks, blundered badly on others, and managed to make it through the last three years with most of my initial capital intact.  But just keeping the cash doesn't really qualify as "success" in my book.  So lately I've been reading a bit about investing in general, and stocks in particular.  I can't say that I've learned a lot yet about where to put my money, but I'm sure learning where not to put it. Not that I've ever been a sucker for the latest stock tip or real estate deal.  More importantly, I'm gaining some insight into my own thoughts about money and investing.

The two most difficult things for me to do are to get started and to just sit and watch.  It takes a lot of prodding to get me going on something, but once I've started I want to fiddle with it, optimize it, make it work better or faster.  Sitting on the sidelines waiting for results is torture.  I think a lot of people are this way.  Once they start a savings plan, they're not content to just buy an investment and watch it grow.  They want to see results right now.  This plays right into the hands of brokers (even online discount brokers) who make piles of money from people buying and selling stocks.  This also explains my absurd desire to buy a piece of rental property:  it's a tangible thing.  I can see money coming in every month and I can try to find ways to improve the bottom line.  So far I've been able to remind myself of the headaches I had in the past, trying to rent a place and then chasing the tenants around for the rent check every month.

I haven't yet figured out where I'm going to invest for the long term.  Right now most of our little stash is squirreled away in reasonably safe no-load mutual funds, waiting for me to decide what to do next.

Friday, 23 April, 2004

My new assignment

I started a new contract for work about a month ago--the week before I went on my bike ride to Harlingen.  I'm on long term (at least six months, possibly two years or more) assignment at a State agency where we're porting a very large application from OS/390 with DB2 to .NET and SQL Server.  As you can probably imagine, that assignment is keeping me pretty busy. Although I won't be able to publicly mention the client or the application specifically, I will be able to talk about issues that come up during the development process.  If nothing else, this is turning out to be quite a learning experience.

"The Application" isn't a single program, but rather about a dozen PL/1 programs that run on the mainframe and about 60 Windows applications (written in Visual Basic) that run on Windows clients and access the DB2 database.  There also is a public Web site that currently runs on AIX and accesses the DB2 database.  We will completely rewrite the PL/1 programs and the Web site, and retrofit the VB applications so that they access the SQL Server database. All this work will be done in approximately 30 months.  We have a hard deadline date that can't be changed, and that makes me a little nervous.

There are three primary variables to any development project:  features, price, and schedule.  One of the cardinal rules of development is that the client can control any two of those variables, but as a developer you have to maintain control of the last one.  Otherwise the client is going to want everything for nothing in no time at all.  It's a recipe for failure.  In this particular case the schedule is set in stone and the existing programs define the minimum feature set.  That leaves the development team with only one variable: the price.  In this case, "price" means how many and what quality of developers we can bring onto the project, and when.  One of my first recommendations after reviewing the project was to develop a detailed staffing plan and get it approved so that we know we have the funds to complete this project on time.  It's going to be an interesting ride.

Thursday, 15 April, 2004

Texas public school finance

Governor Rick Perry of Texas has called a legislative special session to tackle the subject of school finance. Currently, Texas schools are funded almost entirely by property taxes. Since 1995, an unpopular measure referred to as "Robin Hood" takes property tax revenues from more affluent districts and distributes it among poorer districts. Not surprisingly, this measure hasn't made much difference in the quality of education in Texas.  It seems that the more money we throw at the problem, the worse the problem gets.  This was supposed to have been solved years ago with the Texas State Lottery.  Legislators, though, saw how much money was coming in and decided to rake it into the general fund.  No surprise there either.

The Governor has come up with a laughable plan to reform school finance. He proposes a $1 per pack tax increase on cigarettes and a $5 cover charge tax on "adult entertainment."  Oh, there's also a "plan" to raise $3 billion by increasing the number of lottery gambling machines at race tracks.  He's going to finance schools by taxing drug addiction, lust, and stupidity.  I can hear the teachers union now:  "We need more computers.  Please visit your local boobie bar."  The topless clubs, of course, will have a field day:  "Beautiful naked women, big screen TV, and best of all it supports your local schools!"   Good plan, Governor.

Sunday, 11 April, 2004

Ride journal complete

It's amazing how the time passes when you're not paying attention.  I spent the week digging out from under the pile of stuff that built up while I was gone on my bike trip, and planning how to attack the many things that I put aside while I was concentrating on training.  Whenever something has to give, it seems that Random Notes is right at the top of the list.

I did manage, though, to write up my ride journal and post it here on the site.  We're already planning the ride for next year.

Sunday, 04 April, 2004

Not all violence is evil

The other thing the woman I mentioned yesterday got wrong is insisting that all violence is inherently evil.  That's just a silly idea and one I hope she discards as she gets older.  It's nice to think about a world with no violence, but like it or not violence is a part of life.  At least today.  There is a difference, though, between initiating violence and giving a measured response to the unprovoked use of violence.  I, for example, am not a violent person.  I would never consider initiating the use of force for my own benefit.  However, if I or somebody I care about is attacked, I will respond, and I will thank those people who taught me how.  I suspect that even my friend's clueless liberal wife would thank me were I to come to her aid.

On another note, we drove home today with the bike in the trunk of the car.  We covered the same 342 miles that it took me three days to pedal in about six hours, including stops.

Saturday, 03 April, 2004

Military schools teach violence?

We were walking from the Mess Hall to the rifle range yesterday after lunch with a group of other alumni and their wives.  One of the alumni was telling his wife that he wanted to make a small donation to the school and she replied "I don't want to support violence."  The ensuing discussion revealed that she had a very odd view of the military in general and the Marine Military Academy in particular.  The most revealing comment was "You can call it what you like, but I know what it really is.  They're training kids to be violent."  I exercised the better part of valor and didn't engage further.  But it got me to thinking.

Perhaps the most important thing she got wrong was the role of the military training at the school.  Yes, the school is built on the traditions of the United States Marine Corps and operated in large parts by retired Marine Corps officers and Drill Instructors.  But the "military training" focuses mostly on decorum, self-discipline, respect for authority, timeliness, and other such values that have traditionally been held in high regard by the Armed Services.  Cadets learn to march, to salute cadet officers and staff, to say "Yes, sir" and "No, sir", and to treat others with dignity and respect.  Those customs form the structure that's required in order to accomplish the real work of the school:  to prepare future leaders for their next steps in life.  In this case, those next steps are going to college and making their way in the big bad world.

The cadets are of course exposed to violence of some sort or another.  Both boxing and judo are offered as after school activities.  But those sports, especially judo, teach the measured use of violence in appropriate situations.  They teach a little bit about military tactics to those cadets who choose to play paintball, but that's not really part of the standard training.  In any case, cadets aren't exposed to anywhere near the violence that they would be exposed to in public schools, and since they almost never get to watch television, they're probably way behind their peers when it comes to violent behavior.  Yes, fisticuffs occur.  When I was at the school the Drill Instructors had a very effective way to handle that.  They'd take the whole company to the boxing gym, suit the combatants up in the appropriate gear, and let them have at it with everybody watching.  I don't know if that still occurs, but I think it's the most reasonable way to handle it.

Friday, 02 April, 2004

Alumni Reunion/Ride stats

This is the ninth year in a row I've attended the Alumni Reunion at the Marine Military Academy, and every year I show up at the Mess Hall for breakfast at 6:00 on Friday morning.  This year I got up a little earlier than usual and rode my bike the five or so miles from the hotel to the school.  It was good to get up and stretch the legs.  I especially enjoyed the tailwind (something I hadn't experienced in the last few days) the last three miles of the ride.  My legs were a little tired from the last three days, but I was able easily to maintain 15 MPH even into the wind on the way back to the hotel.

I kept a record of every ride I made between October 1 when I started my training program and today, all 113 rides.  Some of them I don't have distances for because they were on the mountain bike or on the stationary trainer.  I do, however, have times for all of the rides.  Recorded mileage since October 1 is 2,578 miles.  Total time spent on the bike (not counting time for stops) was 207 hours, or a little over eight and a half days.  28 hours of that time was spent this week.

I'm working on a writeup of the ride and the training leading up to it.  I'll post a link here as soon as I've completed it.

The cadets had a parade in honor of the alumni this afternoon.  We all posed for a picture in front of the Iwo Jima Memorial afterward.  Somebody mentioned that there seemed to be a correlation between age and girth.  I'm happy to say that I'm bucking the trend.

Thursday, 01 April, 2004

Ride completed!

Well, we completed the ride.  My friend Craig Matteson who graduated from MMA the year before I did showed up at the house on Tuesday morning and we headed out on our adventure.  Tuesday's ride of 136 miles was tough, especially the rough roads on the last 70 miles from San Marcos to Kenedy.  Getting up Wednesday morning wasn't terribly difficult, but we both started feeling the effects of rough roads and too much time in the saddle shortly after lunch when we turned into the wind.  The last 30 miles of the trip to Kingsville (total 108 miles for the day) were painful.  I was moving slowly on Thursday morning before we got going, but also was looking forward to approximately 100 miles on the relatively flat roads between Kingsville and Harlingen.  I knew we were going to have wind, but I underestimated it.  It was a long hard ride south across the King Ranch, with nothing but cars going by, dead animals on the road, and a headwind that varied from strong to really strong.  At least the roads were relatively smooth most of the way.

I took a whole bunch of pictures and am working on a ride journal.  Until then, you can take a look at the pictures page that the Marine Military Academy cycling coach posted from the last day, when two cadets joined us for the last leg of the journey.  The balloons and flowers, by the way, are gifts from Debra and Craig's wife Mickie.  I think the cadets were a little embarrassed getting their pictures taken while holding flowers, but they'll get over it.